Overhearing Women’s Prayer

Photo by Rosie Fraser on Unsplash

The pioneering Christian feminist theologian Letty Russell once described a litmus test for theological statements. With my books packed away for an upcoming move, I won’t be able to track it down, but it went something like this: Any interpretation or statement about God that does not affirm the full humanity of women cannot be of God. That seems like a pretty good standard to me, fully in harmony with a God who created us in diversity, considered us, and called it very good.

My own growth as a pastor and a person has been facilitated by listening in on the testimonies of women who bring their whole selves to the business of preaching, teaching, and leading in a church that has hardly been welcoming at most stages of its history. I feel fortunate to live in a season and to serve in a denomination where women are ordained, commissioned, and appointed to serve. I can’t imagine not having them as mentors, colleagues, and friends.

All to say that it was a welcome experience to read through the prayers in Sarah Bessey’s new book, A Rhythm of Prayer: A Collection of Meditations for Renewal. The voices here are diverse, including prayers from the likes of Barbara Brown Taylor, Amena Brown, Lisa Sharon Harper, and Emily Swan. They represent a variety of tones, as well, from weary to angry to open. As Bessey says in her introduction, they are like the prayers she used to hear at women’s prayer circles when she grew up. “We prayed so differently—there was the lady who prayed exclusively with words from scripture, one who prayed like she was preaching, one who told everyone off in her prayers, another who cried throughout.”(xiii)

It is refreshing to see vulnerability and biblical imagery come together here, as in Nadia Bolz-Weber’s poem, ‘God of Compassion’:

God of Compassion who saw the widow of Nain, we thank you for seeing us. For seeing our loneliness and our bravery. For seeing the times we can’t say what we need to. For seeing the ones who have never felt like they are enough, but whom you know already are and always have been. For seeing the moments when we are more than we thought we could be. For seeing what no one else can or will. Thank you for seeing as beautiful what we call ugly. In your compassion, teach us to see each other. (16-17)

The book has stirred some controversy for its inclusion of a submission by Chanequa Walker-Barnes titled ‘Prayer of a Weary Black Woman.’ Its provocative opening line reads, “Dear God, Please help me to hate White people. Or at least want to hate them.” Those who insist on reading no further will fail (and, by the looks of the standard outrage machine, have failed) to see the prayer’s drumbeat of trust in a God who sustains Black women through the long struggle to redeem every person from the bonds of racism, including those who perpetuate it. Like Jeremiah raging to God against his mission to proclaim judgment and justice, Walker-Barnes ends by affirming that “you have not given me up to slavery or to Jim Crow or to the systems of structural oppression, but you have called me to be an agent in your ministry of justice and reconciliation.” (71-2)

Sarah Bessey, a friend of the late Rachel Held Evans, to whom this book is dedicated, has given us these prayers as a resource for hard days. The prayers are organized in sections titled ‘Orientation,’ ‘Disorientation,’ and ‘Reorientation.’ It’s a cycle we’re familiar with even if we haven’t named it. And there is room for prayer in every stage.

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